Social Justice

Social justice work has long been a part of Unitarian Universalism, and for almost as long it has been a source of tension within and among congregations. One dearly held value-the right to freedom of belief-at times conflicts with our belief that collective social justice work is crucial to who we are as religious people. Congregations need to explore ways of making decisions about social justice actions that affirm both the right to individual belief and the responsibility for corporate social justice action. This section suggests several approaches to decision making about social justice issues.

The following words of James Luther Adams, delivered to Collegium: An Association for Liberal Religious Studies in 1975, point to the theological centrality of social justice to Unitarian Universalism.

Liberal religion's attitude of mind we generally characterize as a critical stance before mere tradition, impatience with creeds once-for-all delivered, the rejection of coercion in religion, freedom of conscience, open-mindedness, tolerance-the liberation of the human spirit from heteronomous authorities. Beautiful attitudes! But attitudes alone do not make or change history. The road to hell is paved with good attitudes. They require institutional embodiment. Indeed, the liberal attitudes mentioned appeared initially in the seventeenth century in connection with a power struggle undertaken in order to change social structure. This struggle was a revolutionary institutional struggle, a struggle against the cage of centralized power in church and state and economic order.

Congregational polity was the new conception of a covenanted church that gave form to this struggle, a polity separating the church from the state, placing responsibility upon the members (the consent of the governed), and giving rise to a self-governing congregation.[1]

As Adams notes, we are not a religious tradition with a creed, but a religious movement that has always wedded social justice work to theology. Before their merger, Unitarians and Universalists were active in making the world a better place, through involvement in abolition, women's suffrage, temperance, prison reform, and numerous other causes that sought to improve the human condition. After merger, activism continued in the areas of civil rights, the peace movement, the feminist movement, gay and lesbian liberation, and the ecological movement-to name a few. Many of our congregations offered sanctuary to draft resisters, provided staging areas for local civil rights marches, organized buses to demonstrations across the United States, worked for the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution, provided sanctuary to "aliens," both in Canada and the United States, and began recycling programs in their communities. Many people came to UU congregations first and foremost because of our liberal voice in the community on these important issues.

The Importance of Social Justice Work

In fact, many of our fastest-growing congregations can point to their involvement in social justice issues as a catalyst to their vitality and growth. The congregation in Portland, Oregon, grew tremendously following its public statements against the proposition to deny gay and lesbian people their human rights. Attendance and membership at our rural church in Ruthven, Ontario (outside Windsor), swelled after an article in the local newspaper detailed the minister's exclusion from the local clergy association because she was not a Christian. Both congregations made clear through their social justice stances that they were religious homes where all were welcome, regardless of society's perceptions. Countless other examples exist-from study of issues to direct service, to advocacy and witness work, and to community organizing-in every community where there are Unitarian Universalists. Scratch a social justice issue and you'll find one of our followers.

It cannot be emphasized enough that Unitarian Universalism entails not only the right and responsibility to come to our own theological understanding-a freedom of belief-but that freedom of belief also calls us, demands us, to participate in social justice work. In the words of James Luther Adams, "Right attitudes are never sufficient alone. They must find embodiment in social institutions. Indeed, one must say that one does not even understand the meaning of Ôright attitudes' or even of a theology until one recognizes their implications for social organization."[2] The "rightness" of our theological beliefs cannot be understood without our involvement in trying to make the world reflect the values we hold. For that reason, social justice, and in particular collective social justice, are required for a full understanding of Unitarian Universalism.

At this point we run into the complexities of congregational polity, in the wide diversity in how congregations approach social justice work. Some empower a social justice or social responsibility committee to be active on behalf of and in the name of the congregation, or only in the name of the committee, or only as individuals. Others allow such committees to work and exist, but not to invoke the name of the congregation. Some congregations have a series of task forces that look at specific issues or programs. Others earmark a certain percentage of their budget or pledges, or raise funds to support the social justice outreach programs of the congregation. Some governing boards are allowed to make statements on behalf of the congregation, whereas others are not. Some congregations require a simple majority of the congregation, whereas others require a super-majority, or never take action as a congregation.

As well, the understanding of what constitutes social justice work varies widely. A vast continuum of actions is designated as social justice work: educating oneself and the community, signing petitions, working hands-on in the community, sponsoring events, collecting and donating money, protesting, marching, undertaking civil disobedience, writing letters to the media-all these and more are aspects of social justice, but may not be recognized as such within individual congregations.[3] There is an almost infinite number of ways that we understand and place "the responsibility upon the members (the consent of the governed)," to quote Adams. Social justice work within Unitarian Universalist congregations is deeply related to our response to marginalized groups, both within our congregations and society at large. See also "Marginalized Groups," Section 11 of this report.

Congregational Fears

Collective congregational social justice is central and crucial to living out what it means to be Unitarian Universalist. Our congregations should see social justice as an important part of their corporate ministry-their service-to the world. Accordingly, a good social justice program should enjoy broad support and involvement in the congregation. We recognize that there are valid concerns about the unintended repercussions of such congregational activity, but believe it better to err on the side of action rather than inaction.

Many fears arise about the inadvertent effects of corporate social justice work. Some members dislike congregational social justice action for fear of divisions or conflicts that will arise in the decision-making process. This fear is not unfounded: Our congregations have divided over social justice issues from the involvement of the United States in the world wars, through the US involvement in the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the pro-choice movement, and gay and lesbian liberation. Conflicts over war-related issues affect not only US congregations; several Canadian congregations actively worked against World War II and especially on behalf of draft dodgers during the Vietnam era-not always to universal approval.

Yet we must not let our fear of division be the determining factor in social justice work. To quote William Gardiner, director of Faith in Action: A UUA Department for Diversity and Justice,

Conflict doesn't only happen around social justice issues in the congregation. Many (some would say all) decisions in the life of the church involve conflict. Questions arise: Should we build a new organ or keep the old one? What kind of hymns should we sing? What kind of music should we have on Sunday morning? Should the minister wear a robe or not? Sometimes people can get very heated about these issues. It is unfair to single out social justice as being especially conflict laden. . . . The congregation needs to address how it processes controversy in any area of its life."[4]

Sometimes our ideas about social justice decision-making processes become coupled with an erroneous understanding of congregational polity applied to the individual member. People reason that if no congregation can be told what to do by any other congregation, then no member of a congregation can be told what to believe or do as far as social justice and social witness are concerned. In an apparent attempt to honor the diversity within our movement, some people take our theological process and this limited understanding of congregational polity to mean that no congregation can speak out on social justice issues without the consent of the entire congregation. Instead, the congregation defines its role as supporting its members in their individual contributions to the social justice realm.

The Need for Social Justice Involvement

These are persuasive arguments against carrying out social justice work in our congregations. However, when our congregations cannot speak individually or collectively, we all lose a broader voice within the community. In contrast to other religions that do speak out and speak out forcefully on issues, we give up the ability to have a voice that is greater than that of the individual, and we lose the chance to demonstrate that there is a vital liberal religious movement working on many important social justice issues. As William Gardiner writes, "The principle of freedom of conscience does not exist by itself. It exists in relation to other important principles of our faith like the responsibility to seek the truth and the commitment to act on those beliefs which are passionately held. A vital liberal faith will find a creative balance between these three important principles."[5]

Another reason that social justice work may be fraught with conflict is that often social justice is envisioned in one way-marching and demonstrating with signs and banners proclaiming a congregation's position on a particular issue. But this image is a small picture of social justice potential. As stated earlier, social justice may include education, service, advocacy, witnessing, and community organizing. It can include education for the congregation or the community at large on a variety of issues, from the controversial (abortion, assisted suicide, gun control, and the death penalty) to the non-controversial (prenatal care, information on choosing nursing homes for aged or ill family members, and grief recovery).

Service can include cleaning up trash alongside a highway, providing religious services for correctional institutions, serving food to the homeless, or shoveling snow for shut-ins. Advocacy could mean helping those labelled mentally ill to find access to diminishing services, or filing tax returns for the elderly. Witnessing could be standing silently by at funerals for young people killed by violence, attending rallies led by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or undertaking civil disobedience outside a nuclear power plant. Community organizing could be working with Habitat for Humanity to build a new home in the neighborhood or fighting city hall to get public housing projects upgraded and made safer. There is a wide gamut of potential ways of being socially active and every congregation within the UUA should be able to find a unifying way to engage their beliefs for the improvement of its community.

We must also remember that to decide not to decide or act is in itself a decision on social justice work within the congregation. William Gardiner states:

Finally, the idea that the church should take no position on moral issues seems to be self-contradictory-for taking no action is in itself a form [of] action. This was clearly shown in the case of the German churches that did not speak out against Hitler as he rose to power. This unwillingness to speak out led to terrible consequences for millions of people across the world. The result of not taking a position on issues is to support the status quo. Not to decide is to decide[6]

Social Justice Decision Making

Congregational polity calls us not only to be active in the world, but to be active in a way that honors the diversity in our congregations. We recommend that whatever process congregations use to determine their social justice work be a just process that respects the diversity of opinion in the congregation. Making decisions about social justice work in a manner that does not respect the disparate views in our congregations is not a good model. A respectful process involves as many people as possible in the decision-making process, and provides ample time for people to digest issues before determining which action is appropriate. To retain a sense of congregational involvement, action may need to take a less "radical" issue or style of social justice than some might desire.

The Department of Faith in Action has designed a grid for congregations to use in making these key decisions. The grid can be found in William Gardiner's paper, "Congregational Decision Making About Controversial Social Justice Issues," which is available through the Department of Faith in Action.

The Commission also recommends that the process used for making decisions about social justice action include the greatest number of people possible with ample opportunities for education and discussion. Town hall meetings and other vehicles for information and opinion sharing without voting are one option, as are small discussion groups. Care must be taken not to make a decision so quickly that members of the congregation do not feel heard. If the process allows time for deliberation and discussion, then a level of trust can be maintained so that people feel honored in their agreement or disagreement with the majority. We recommend the use of a super-majority-two-thirds or three-quarters of those present, for example-to reduce the possibility of congregations dividing over social justice issues.

We also believe that after due consideration and a vote in accordance with the congregation's decision-making process, people should accept the right of the majority (or super-majority) to act, even if they do not agree personally. Part of being in a democratic community is learning the art of compromise and consensus making, not in the sense that we must all agree, but that we can all go along with the process and the decisions that arise from that process. The Social Justice Empowerment Program Handbook created by the Department of Faith in Action provides a resource for congregations working toward framing their social justice agenda. (See Section 6, "Congregational Governance," for a more detailed discussion of the decision-making process.)

It may be, as well, that the best decision on some issues is to refrain from acting, particularly in emergency situations when there is not ample time for information gathering and discussion, or after prolonged debate when no clear consensus emerges. Rather than jeopardize the congregation in these situations, it is better to refrain from acting. However, we hope that the work the congregations do in setting a tenor of social justice action as the norm will greatly limit the frequency of these situations.

On an associational level, the Canadian Unitarian Council has developed a social justice alternative to the UUA Resolution process. When the Canadian Unitarian Council reviewed its social justice stands on several issues, they found that they were often constrained by the particular language of a resolution passed at their Annual General Meeting. To avoid such limitations and to receive input on an issue, one congregation developed a curriculum on death and dying and the social justice issues implied therein. Members of most Canadian congregations took part in the curriculum and then answered open-ended questions about a range of issues covered in the program. The Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) reviewed the completed questionnaires and prepared a consensus statement on the various issues. Rather than creating resolutions about specific situations or conditions, the CUC has data available on many aspects of death and dying so that the board can respond to a variety of situations with valid input from its constituencies.

Similarly, individual congregations could entertain views on a variety of issues, complete questionnaires, and using majority-supermajority rules, empower a committee or board to speak on behalf of the congregation on the basis of the information contained in the questionnaires.

In some congregations and some districts or larger groupings of congregations, movement toward collective social justice programming will be more difficult than in others. Where the ethic of individual rights and freedoms is accentuated to a greater degree than the responsibility to the collective, it may be more difficult for individuals to give up their autonomy for the greater whole. However, if we are to reach our potential as a religious movement and if we are to fully embrace the concept of the "community of autonomous congregations," we need to be willing to recognize and emphasize our interrelatedness.

Social Justice Work on the Associational Level

While we encourage congregations to increase their social justice involvement, we also uphold the right and need for the Unitarian Universalist Association as a whole to remain actively engaged in social justice work. This is a complex issue for our multinational Association. Social justice issues vary greatly between nations and the approaches taken must be specific to the culture in which the issues arise. For example, the nature of racism in the United States is different than in Canada, and issues about racism are different in Canada than in Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, and the other nations in which UUA member congregations are found. The UUA Board and staff do not have the knowledge or expertise to address social justice issues in all nations. For Canadian Unitarian Universalists, collective national social justice work can be carried out by the Canadian Unitarian Council. In the United States, the answer is not as clear because of the multinational nature of the UUA.

Although we recognize the complexity of the issue, we still hold that collective social justice is a priority for our religious movement. Therefore, we recommend that the UUA Board of Trustees continue to be empowered to make statements on behalf of the Association on social justice issues within the United States, especially in cases where General Resolutions already exist. In addition, we recommend that the Board continue to work for social justice by supporting the Department of Faith in Action's submission of amici curi legal briefs and engaging in collaborative work with interfaith coalitions on key issues. Working on social justice issues is a key part of who we are as a religious people. To ensure that we remain consistent with our principles, the UUA Board must be empowered to act on social justice issues as it sees fit, bearing in mind the diversity of the Association. This diversity is also the reason that we suggest that the UUA Board's statements be limited to social justice issues in the United States.

We also recommend that congregations become (or remain) active in the resolutions process through engagement with the study resolutions and action on resolutions adopted by General Assembly. Congregations may also submit comments, suggestions, and amendments to resolutions without having to attend General Assembly. We also encourage increased congregational involvement in General Assembly, not only on social justice issues but also to further our connections as "a community of autonomous congregations." (See Section 7, "Cooperative Relationships," for more discussion on issues related to the resolutions process and suggestions for increasing participation at General Assembly.)


1. We affirm our belief that collective social justice activity is an integral part of Unitarian Universalism and necessary for living out our theological approach. Such action should be retained and strengthened, using decision-making processes that are just and respectful of diversity of opinion. Action for social justice in no way violates congregational polity, but rather provides a way for understanding the increased power of working together as a "community of autonomous congregations."


  1. The process that congregations use to determine social justice work should be just and respectful of the diversity of opinion in the congregation.
  2. The process used for making decisions about social justice action should include the greatest number of people possible with ample opportunity for education and discussion.
  3. A super-majority-two-thirds or three-quarters of those present, for example-should be used to reduce the possibility of congregations dividing over social justice issues.
  4. The UUA Board of Trustees should continue to be empowered to make statements on behalf of the Association on social justice issues within the United States, especially in cases where General Resolutions exist. In addition, we recommend that the Board continue to work actively for social justice by supporting the department of Faith in Action's submission of amici curi legal briefs and engaging in collaborative work with interfaith coalitions on key issues.
  5. Congregations should become (or remain) active in the UUA resolutions process through engagement with the study resolutions and action on resolutions adopted by General Assembly.


Research was based on the personal experience of the Commissioners; conversations with William Gardiner, director, Faith in Action: A UUA Department for Diversity and Justice; Marilyn Sewell, minister, First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon; Anne Treadwell, minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Olinda, Ruthven, Ontario; written materials from Faith in Action, particularly "Congregational Decision Making About Controversial Social Justice Issues" by William Gardiner and the Social Justice Empowerment Program Handbook.


  1. James Luther Adams, "From Cage to Covenant," in The Prophethood of All Believers, edited by George K. Beach (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986), p. 136.
  2. James Luther Adams, "Theological Bases of Social Action," in On Being Human Religiously, edited by Max L. Stackhouse (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1976), p. 114.
  3. Details on the continuum of social justice work appear in several publications published by the Department of Faith in Action, as well as in Our Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism by John Buehrens and F. Forrester Church (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989).
  4. William Gardiner, "Congregational Decision Making About Controversial Social Justice Issues," January 12, 1996, p. 12. (Paper available through Faith in Action.)
  5. Ibid., p. 3.
  6. Ibid., p. 5.

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